The Dangers of Spring: Early Season Starvation for Bees

Spring weather can be volatile, posing a hazard to bees who've survived the winter. Safeguard your bees against starvation and predators during this precarious season.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Krzysztof Lis/Flickr

Spring is a precarious time for the beekeeper. One day it will be warm and sunny, daffodils popping up before your eyes. The next day, those sunny flowers will be buried under 4 inches of snow. In most parts of the continental United States, spring teases gardeners and beekeepers for weeks or months, promising warmth but threatening frost. This is dangerous and precarious time for our bees, who, if they have overwintered successfully, still have a ways to go.

Most hives that die of starvation in the winter don’t do so in January—they perish in early spring. This makes sense if you consider that they run through their stores during the coldest months and might be low in the spring. When the weather warms, and the environment is beginning to grow back, there’s another window of potential starvation before everything blooms. Bees might become more active, break their winter cluster and burn more calories in search of food. But this doesn’t mean there is any to find.

If ever there were a time to consider feeding your bees, early spring would be one of them. Perhaps nectar bearing plants and flowers bloom early in spring where you live, and your bees get off to a rocking start. That is what all beekeepers hope for. For many, this potential window of starvation means the colonies will need a little assistance. Conduct your first spring inspection when temperature is above 55 degrees F during the day, ideally on a sunny day with little wind. Take inventory of winter stores, and check for the queen. The brood nest will be small, and that’s normal. But you should see a little bit of brood in various stages of development, including eggs.

Make note of how much capped honey remains and whether any pollen is present. Assess whether the bees need to be fed supplemental honey or syrup and then determine the best method to provide it. Large amounts of feed are best provided in a hive-top feeder, or through the bucket feeders. A bit to tide them over can be offered through the baggie method (where a plastic bag is filled with syrup and small slits are cut in the top), or in a mason jar entrance feeder. Reputable beekeeping supply catalogs have everything you need.

There’s one big caveat when it comes to spring feeding your bees: Remember that feeding simulates the honey flow, and this encourages the queen to speed up her laying. If you feed too much and for too long, you risk telling the bees that it’s spring, and they respond by expanding their population before it’s the proper time. If the colony grows and another cold snap hits, their young brood becomes vulnerable. Feed only in the window before your last frost date and once they’ve broken cluster.

With diligence and mindful inspections, you can keep your bees from starving late in the seasonal game. Have everything you need at the ready, conduct inspections and support them as needed, and your bees will get a great start on the season.

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